Harlem Sketches


Looking South from 125th and 7th


6:55am 136th and Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Blvd. Five minutes till my carpool picks me up. Bordello isn’t open yet but the bulletproof, rotating window is being serviced. I order a cheap cup of coffee. “Son, how old are you?” an old, wizened reed of a woman sitting on a bucket asks me. “How old do you think I am?” I ask. Bearded, people usually guess 30. “24” she says. I had turned 25 a couple days earlier, but I shrug, “Yeah, you got me.” “Alright now, son,” she says, “for guessing correctly how about you buy me a bottle of water.” You’re not panhandling if you can do a good trick. I buy her a bottle of water.

Some night, dark, at Papaya King on 3rd and 86th. Order my hotdog. An ill smelling man in a grungy green army coat and knotted beard appears with his hand outstretched to me holding a quarter: “Fifty cents for a quarter?” You’re not panhandling if you can make me laugh. I give him fifty cents and accept the quarter.

Fredrick Douglas Blvd. and 140th (or thereabouts). Very fat lady on an electric scooter stopped in the middle of the sidewalk with a scared look on her face and she goes, “It just stopped working.” Her friend: “What do you mean? Oh shit. Can I push you?” Fat lady shaking her head, “No, that won’t work!” I guess they’ll have to call a tow truck.

Rooftop 136th and Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Blvd. Friend and a bottle of wine. Sun setting to the west. The rooftop door bursts open and out walk two men and a lady bearing food, wine, table and chairs. “What is this?” one of the men asks in an Eastern European accent with confrontational tone. “Why are you drinking wine from the bottle?” “It’s a $5 bottle,” we say. “It doesn’t matter!” he says. “No matter the wine, it deserves to be drank from a glass!” We discover they’re Croatian so we decide not to argue and they go off to sit on their corner of the building and drink their wine from glasses.


Walking down Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Blvd. Drops of water falling from a blue sky. A couple with a baby stroller in front of me look up at the sky as do I—curiosity. The man walks back to check the cause, the woman with the stroller stops as do I and look back up at the top of the building from whence, presumably, the water came. I ask her, “Was that water we just got hit by?” She pauses just for a second, then laughs, “I hope so!”


L Train. End of the line at 8th Street. There’s a group of high school girls talking and laughing together. And then I get this strange sense they’re talking about me. They’re talking quiet now but still laughing. And then as the doors are about to open, one of them pokes me in the ribs and says, “My friend thinks you have a nice butt.” I laugh, say thank you, and then walk away very quickly.


136th and Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Blvd. There’s a black tranny that hangs on my block. She wears a blond wig, dresses fairly well, and while stringy, has good biceps. The masculine jaw, though, gives the affair away. I go to buy a beer at the corner bodega and she’s interacting with the Arab Muslim attendant (all the bodegas in NYC seem to be owned by Arabs). As I hand the attendant my money, he’s simultaneously opening a pack of cigarettes and hands the tranny two of them who in return hands him two dollars. Muslim, tranny, loose cigarettes, two dollars.

Morningside Park and Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Blvd. Went to the park to play some ultimate and half the field is occupied by black kids at soccer camp. And that’s when I realize these are Africans and not African Americans (the ubiquitous demographic in Harlem.) And now, with that small realization, I can recognize the Africans as their own thing. Tonight, wandering home, I walked through a party on the street in front of a barber shop. Potluck and music in a foreign tongue. Africans.

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